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The Annotated "Frank Sinatra has a Cold"

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Elliotte Friedman, Oct 18, 2013.

  1. Elliotte Friedman

    Elliotte Friedman Moderator Staff Member

    Elon Green for the Nieman Foundation does an excellent piece with Gay Talese about the famous article. It's a terrific read, but something stopped me cold and didn't make me comfortable: Talese admits he lifted a) the famous Joe DiMaggio/Marilyn Monroe exchange and b) several facts about Sinatra from a previous book.

    Here is one exchange between Green and Talese:

    EG: Can I ask you about that? I think there’s now a different standard to which editors hold reporters. They’d make you attribute that stuff.

    GT: I have attributed stuff, but there’s times you don’t want to attribute.

    EG: The times have changed.

    GT: It could be that I’m open for criticism. Just to go back to the DiMaggio piece — if I had said, “‘Oh, Joe, you never heard such cheering,’ Marilyn said, according to Maurice Zolotow in Glamour magazine,” it would kill it. So you take what is a part of the public record; that quote was probably published two or three years before. Now, if I had had an appendix, I’d have cited it. But it didn’t seem like I could put it in without messing up the whole atmosphere. You couldn’t do that. If you did it, you’d blow it. The quote wouldn’t resonate the way it did.

    EG: Right

    GT: We’re not talking about daily journalism, remember. This is part of the New Journalism. It takes certain liberties, if you will, from formal journalism — formulaic journalism.

    Here is the full piece http://www.niemanstoryboard.org/2013/10/08/annotation-tuesday-gay-talese-and-frank-sinatra-has-a-cold/
  2. Wonderlic

    Wonderlic Member

    I'm glad you posted this. I had been meaning to for several days. And I've been thinking a lot about it. Is this not outright plagiarism? Is there any gray area? Sinatra has a Cold is a celebrated piece of work, as is the DiMaggio piece. I understand where Talese is coming from, as far as from a strictly writing perspective, but when it comes to actual journalism there's no way this is OK, right?

    I was also taken aback by the revelation that Sinatra has a Cold ran almost entirely as submitted, with relatively no editing and possibly little to no fact-checking.

    Talese goes on to show his ignorance as to the degree of fact-checking that was done at various magazines, and defends his lack of double-checking the accuracy of info he lifts from other sources.

    Talese also admits to what in essence is manufacturing quotes. And seems to trip over himself a couple of times on whether or not he actually takes notes.

    Talese also says he probably DID have at least one opportunity to interview Sinatra during the reporting of the piece, but CHOSE NOT TO.

    I ended up feeling very bad about the work of Gay Talese, which I had always greatly admired.
  3. The Big Ragu

    The Big Ragu Moderator Staff Member

    I'm not weighing in on whether it was right or wrong, but the idea behind "new journalism" or the "literary journalism " of the 60s and 70s was that they were trying to create non-fiction that read like literature.

    It's why I think Talese is so unapologetic about it. The criticism is that it sometimes wasn't clear if -- or where -- they crossed the line from non-fiction into actual fiction. But I think it was implicitly understood by readers of a certain group of writers (Talese, Capote, Thompson, Mailer, Didion, Wolfe, Plimpton, etc. -- and Esquire magazine, in general) that they were playing by a different set of rules. Some more true to fact that others.

    For one, they saw it as their role to be subjective about subjects, rather than objective -- they started stories with a point of view and they were unapologetic about it. For another, even though they reported stories (they actually often immersed themselves in the stories beyond what most traditional reporters do), they wanted their stuff to read like literature.

    The fact that they sometimes played fast and loose with rules does call some of their stuff into question -- Talese included . Does anyone believe that Hunter S. Thompson didn't gild the lilly for effect? Norman Mailer coined the term "factoid" in his "biography" of Marilyn Monroe. Talese often wrote scenes he hadn't witnessed as if he was recounting them word for word. He'd tell you that he researched, interviewed subjects and did legwork up the wazoo.

    It was a different standard and "style" of journalism.
  4. joe king

    joe king Active Member

    You might put "journalism" in those quote marks instead of style.
  5. LongTimeListener

    LongTimeListener Well-Known Member

    Not at all. At that time, it was journalism.

    The puritanism about what is and isn't journalism is a new development.
  6. joe king

    joe king Active Member

    Stealing quotes without attribution. Or using quotes that aren't necessarily what someone actually said (because I don't take notes) -- more like what he should have said ("the most ideal representation"). Fact-checking? Well, I assume someone else was doing that for me but I really don't know. Oh, what? They really didn't? Oops, my bad. And that crucial part of the story that no one would let me get to Sinatra? Well, I probably could have but that would have ruined the story, so I didn't bother.

    Journalism or docu-drama?
  7. LongTimeListener

    LongTimeListener Well-Known Member

    I don't buy the "stealing quotes." As I understand it, he used a well-known quote that had been in circulation for quite some time. Not much chance it was going to be seen as his "get." I suppose the extension of this is when every so often you see an attribution that a guy "told reporters" instead of that he "said," which is somehow supposed to clear up the attribution question. Haha.

    As Ragu said, it was a different exercise than daily reportage/stenography.

    Really sad that someone would feel as Wonderlic does, that the story is ruined because we're applying 21st-century gotcha standards to something written 50 years ago.
  8. Wonderlic

    Wonderlic Member

    1) Fabricating quotes
    2) Abandoning due diligence
    3) "Lifting" reams of info from other sources - including quotes - without attribution for the sake of story flow
    4) Choosing to not interview the primary subject of the story despite opportunities to do so and then framing the "ability" to work around failing to land said interview as some sort of journalistic triumph

    ... These are what you would call "21st century gotcha standards?"
  9. H.L. Mencken

    H.L. Mencken Member

    The using the now-famous Monroe quote without attribution (which was a standard practice for magazines back then) is the only "revelation" I'm remotely "concerned" about (which is to say, barely at all.)

    The quotes thing is dumb. The quotes are what people said to his best recollection. Whether he was stoping and asking questions in the middle and not properly including ellipsis is silly. These are the essence of those conversations. He talked in the annotations about how he would often excuse himself and write down notes or conversations exactly as he remembered them as soon as it was possible. I think holding this piece to a digital recorder standard is dumb.

    The "oh, he didn't interview Sinatra!" gotcha is even dumber. The author of a profile is under no obligation to speak to the profile subject. Your job is to capture him. He did that better than anyone had ever captured him. What Sinatra says about himself isn't that interesting, frankly. The world he inhabits -- one he created -- is far more interesting.
  10. buckweaver

    buckweaver Active Member

    I'm much less concerned with the breaking of the so-called "rules" — the sanctity of the quote, in particular — by the New Journalists and their ilk. What bothers me more is the well-documented inaccuracy of some of their reporting.

    The recent revelations about "In Cold Blood" are a lot more disturbing than anything disclosed by Talese in this wonderful piece by Elon Green.

    The example I use most often here is Eliot Asinof's "Eight Men Out," which was written in a similar "nonfiction novel" style as that favored by Talese, Capote, Wolfe, HST, et al. It's not the dramatic license that I take issue with in a book like Asinof's, nor in Talese's Sinatra story. Whether a quote was published before in another source is immaterial to me.

    But was the quote ever actually said? I don't know, and I bet neither does Talese because he didn't hear it first-hand. Does he trust every single one of those sources he used? I know it was a different era, but you fucking better trust it if you're not using attribution — the purpose of which is not only to provide credit where due to the original source, but also to cover your own ass in case it turns out to be wrong. Because you didn't report it in the first place, so how do you know for sure?

    That's where, for instance, Asinof's book stops holding up for me. In his desire to write the most compelling and dramatic narrative, he significantly fudged the facts. (And in some cases, he totally made shit up.) Not because he may have lifted quotes or used source material without attribution, but because the entire central premise of the story has turned out to be not as true as he made it seem.

    I'm not saying that's the case for "Sinatra," or even "In Cold Blood." I think Talese clearly did his homework before reporting and writing "Sinatra," so I'm inclined to believe that he did capture the essence of the real Frank Sinatra better than anyone before or since. But as we're finding out with Capote and Asinof, there was a pattern of carelessness in regards to accuracy with some of these New Journalism stories. And that just puts a little question mark in my head sometimes, that's all.
  11. Joe Williams

    Joe Williams Well-Known Member

    Not bothered at all by the use of the Monroe/DiMaggio quote. It had been out there, no one was going to mistakenly credit Talese for mining it. It is and probably by then already was part of the lore.

    I am a little more bothered by the stuff Talese says about his quote process. Even with "new journalism," you wanted to believe that what appeared inside quote marks was, with only a few minor discrepancies maybe, actually said. If you're going for the essence, you can always paraphrase, though I know this deadens the piece a little without the added (alleged) voice. Don't like his concept of the co-quoting someone -- quotes are a way of, within reason, separating the subject's words from the author's. Author who steps into the subject's quotes really reminds the reader that there's only one voice in that bit of "journalism."
  12. Steak Snabler

    Steak Snabler Well-Known Member

    Capote was also famous for never taking notes. He claimed to have a photographic memory and could remember conversations verbatim.
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